Post Haste

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The importance of the railroads, and the pressure on them for ever-greater speed and efficiency, are summed up in a lyrical passage that Postmaster General John Wanamaker wrote in the Post Office Department’s annual report for 1890: “The swiftest mail is not fast enough. … We strain every muscle and nerve trying to gain an hour or two on this collection or that delivery. We worry the railroad with importunities for new trains or faster ones that shall save perhaps three or four hours. … The priceless privilege of communications by post is maintained though every other channel of intercourse is closed.”

The zenith of American railway development was probably reached around 1905. By that year the track network had expanded to around 216,000 miles, over which ran more than 48,000 locomotives, almost 40,000 passenger cars, and more than 1,700,000 freight cars, all valued at $11,950,000,000 (uninflated). Enjoying a period of unprecedented prosperity, the railroads were rapidly replacing their rolling stock. In large part the intent was to boost speed and shorten schedules. As the English authority Sir Neville Priestley noted at the time, “the one idea in the mind of American railway men is to ‘get there’ and … ‘get there’ by the shortest and quickest way possible.” The key was locomotives, an all-time record 6,300 of which were ordered in 1905.

Many of these were a new type known as the Atlantic. Ever since May 1893, when a specially modified New York Central & Hudson American model (the famous No. 999) claimed a world speed record of 112.5 miles per hour, there had been considerable interest in improving the top speed of the tall-wheeled locomotives specialized for hauling passengers and mail. As a result of experiments that turned the Camden—to—Atlantic City Seashore Flyer into the fastest regularly scheduled train in the world, a newly configured locomotive was developed. It had extremely large drive wheels for speed and an extra-large firebox for power, the weight of which was supported by two added wheels below the cab. Named after their original destination, these Atlantics were routinely capable of pulling trains in excess of 80 mph, and speed-conscious Eastern railroads rushed to put them into service. In 1905 both the New York Central and the Pennsylvania line were able to begin eighteenhour service from New York to Chicago. On the Penn’s inaugural run its Atlantic No. 7002 reputedly hit 127.1 mph.

These speeds could not be duplicated in the West; there the predominance of single tracks, less-substantial roadbeds, and the necessity of using slower, more robust Pacific locomotives over the mountains made for more leisurely schedules. Nonetheless, times from Chicago to San Francisco fell steadily from ninety-four hours in 1883 to eighty-five hours a decade later and to around eighty hours in 1905, making a transcontinental run in four days possible with the right connections.

 
The pony express was an anachronism; the future now lay with electricity and steam.

While these developments were primarily motivated by passenger-service demand, an important component was rapid mail delivery. The very high speeds were limited to a few crack trains, most of which included mail cars. (U.S. policy dictated that the mail must be carried on the fastest trains and that they must be given the right of way.) Although the relationship between the railroads and the Post Office had been a stormy one, the federal government consistently encouraged changes that would speed the mails; the railroads, which were well paid for their services, cooperated.

The first key innovation was the dedicated postal car, which allowed mail to be sorted in transit. This was not an easy task. Postmaster General Thomas L. James recommended that a postal clerk must “not only be proficient in his immediate work, but he must have a general knowledge of the entire country. … He must know no night and no day. He must be impervious to heat and cold … catching his meals as he may; at home only semi-occasionally.”

The efforts of postal clerks —and their use of an automatic pickup device that enabled speeding trains to grab pouch mail suspended from trackside stanchions—made the so-called fast-mail trains possible. The service, begun in 1874 by William H. Vanderbilt on the New York Central, with twenty-four-hour New York-to-Chicago delivery, captured the public imagination so effectively that by the turn of the century roads like the Chicago and North Western and Burlington were racing each other through the night to bring the mail to Denver and Omaha. By 1905 fast-mail trains consisting of sixty-foot all-steel postal cars pulled by Atlantics moved the mail virtually as fast as any passenger could have hoped to travel aboard a crack Pullman.

Still, if you “absolutely and positively” had to have a document transported coast to coast in the shortest possible time, the express companies were probably the best bet. By 1890 American Express, Adams Express, and Wells, Fargo had basically carved up the United States, each establishing a corner on its sector, arranging with the railroads to charge whatever the market would bear—a tariff considerably higher than the regulated but still highly profitable rates set by the federal government.